My aging father's health has been getting worse, and my recent ADHD-fueled outburst has made things worse. But my son, who also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), handles stress and anxiety with ease. Can I learn from his example?
by Frank South
“Your move,” he says.
I look up at my father, and he nods at the chessboard between us on the dining room table. Mom’s in my parent's bedroom taking an afternoon nap. Dad sips his coffee and takes a bite of the liverwurst sandwich I made for him. “Well,” Dad says. “Are you going to do something or just give up?”
Good question. At the end of my last post I’d woken up in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house when I’d heard my 87-year-old father roll by with his walker in the hallway on his way to the kitchen to get his morning coffee. The night before, after bottling things up forever, he and I had fought long and hard about his drinking and the problems it had been causing our family. He’d gone to bed, and with my mother’s exhausted permission, I’d spent the rest of the night throwing all of the liquor out of their house. So this morning, once Dad rolled into the kitchen, he’d discover what I’d done while he slept.
I considered intercepting him in the hallway and telling him myself before he got to the kitchen, his suspicion raised, likely to slam open the door to the vacant liquor cabinet and notice all of his bar paraphernalia gone. Who knows? I thought. Maybe he’d respond well to a little tour of his new sober life as I see it. There’s no need for this to be confrontational. We got all that out of our systems last night.
My hand on the doorknob, I followed my hyperfocus-fueled logic down the (ADD/ADHD) anti-logic rabbit hole: I’d show my grateful father his new scrubbed clean and empty liquor cabinet that could now be used to store any number of healthy items. He likes V-8 juice, doesn’t he? Dad would say, “By golly, you’re right, son, I do.” I’d point out that we could put a bunch of bottles of that in there and some big jars of cashews. “I do enjoy a salted nut,” he’d say. “And how about putting in boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins?” I’d suggest. He’d like those with cheese wouldn’t he? “I sure would,” he’d say. “I’m happy you did this, son.” Of course he’d be happy -- nuts, crackers, V-8, and anything else I could think of to cheer him up are all cocktail hour food. The only reason any of this stuff ever existed at all was to gussy up a drink. Knowing he’d won, Dad would laugh, pat my shoulder, and tell me to fix him a plate of those nuts, crackers, and cheese with a nice tall V-8 and gin Bloody Mary.
With me still in the guest bedroom, deep in my ADD/ADHD rabbit hole, Dad rolled past, closing in on the kitchen. I took my hand off the doorknob. No, I thought. I’d shower, shave, and take my morning meds before I tried any actual face-to-face communication.
The thing is, when I got myself together and went out to the kitchen that morning, neither Dad nor Mom were acting any differently. We had breakfast and coffee, shared the paper, and Dad flipped through morning TV news shows. Everything was eerily Twilight Zone normal. Not even my fine-tuned WASP radar could pick up a trace of buried emotions or hidden meanings until my mother asked me to help her to bed for a nap. As I tucked her in and gave her a vitamin drink and pain meds, she told me that Dad had noticed the empty cabinet and hadn’t said anything. “But I think he’s fine with it,” she said. “I think he understands.”
Sitting across the dining room table from me now, chewing liverwurst and drinking black coffee, my father doesn’t look fine. His eyes search mine. To me, he looks like he’s setting a trap. I know he is on the chessboard. Ever since he first taught me to play chess, our games reflected our personalities. I bludgeon straight down the middle of the board, heatedly chopping through game pieces, reigning terror. Dad lays back, cool and calculated, drifting to the sides and then springs his calm logical trap, destroying my desperate emotional attack. I know that this chess game and what I did after the fight last night are all tied up together somehow, but I’m too caught up in all the emotional tendrils of that to know what to do. I’m so completely bound by the strained cabling of love, anger, respect, fear, and adoration wrapped through my history with my father for me to be able to make any sense of it at all. And now I’m back to bottling things up. I bring my queen forward on the attack. My father smiles.
God Almighty, I’m a complete wreck. As my father studies the board for the most diabolical way to destroy me, I think about my own son, Harry. Like me, Harry has ADD/ADHD. But he’s a guy who just doesn’t let things get to him.
Last March, a week before I went up to Delaware to help out with my parents, my wife, Margaret, and I threw a little good-bye party for our 23-year-old ADD/ADHD son. In a couple of days, Harry was going off on his own and moving back to Hawaii where he has longtime friends from the 10 years we lived there before we moved to Georgia. Harry’s favorite food is chicken tamales, so we ordered a couple of trays of them from the best local Mexican restaurant. Margaret made guacamole, and we cooked rice and black beans and stocked up on beer and soda.
All the while Margaret and I were running around gussying up the house, Harry just watched, looking bemused. I asked him when his new friends from work were coming over, and he said, “They’re not, Dad. We hung out last night.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why, because the dingbat bozos are embarrassed of their part in wrecking your car? Hey, that was a few months ago. I don’t hold a grudge, Harry.”
“Uh, yeah, you kind of do, Dad,” Harry said. “But that’s not it. They’ve got work or other stuff. It’s probably better that it’s just family.”
I took a minute and looked at him. He really wasn’t upset that his friends weren’t coming or that I hold a grudge, nor was he the least bit hesitant in telling me so. If there’s a perfect example of a guy who takes things as they are, who doesn’t get his feelings hurt or become emotionally confused and says what he thinks, it’s my son. As maddening as his basic disengagement with day-to-day emotional life is, I admire his detached “no worries” shrug. Standing there in the living room with him, I knew I’d miss it.
I sure as hell could use some of Harry’s emotional detachment right now, I thought as I watched my father contemplate his next move on the chessboard. Dad wasn’t saying anything, settled back in his chair, sipping his coffee, and stared at me across the chessboard again. And once again, it was my move.
Maybe that’s it, though -- I should stop bottling up everything until it gets confused and explodes. Maybe the only way to fix this mess between my father and me is to be more like my son.